A Gathering Storm? Artistic Crisis and the Coming of the First World War

Dean Robert Stacey
December 7, 2014 - UW School of Music 

            It has become conventional amongst historians of almost every stripe to begin the history of 19th century Europe with the French Revolution in 1789, and to end it with the onset of the First World War in 1914 -- a period often referred to as “the long 19th century”.  I have no quarrel with this periodization; quite the contrary, it seems to me to make eminent good sense.  Granted, this long 19th century does leave us, by necessity, with a very short 20th century.  The 20th century does not even arrive at the party until 1914; and then, like a rude party guest, it leaves early, in 1989, with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  But the 20th century compressed so much horror into its 75 years that I think none of us will wish it to have lasted any longer than it did.  Many of us, I suspect, would just as soon have skipped it altogether.

            The 19th century, however, is a different matter.  Especially in the realms of culture --  of literature, music, and painting --  it is difficult to think of a century more eventful, more successful, or more productive of great art than the period between 1789 and 1914.  Even today, the 19th century remains for most devotees of high European culture a kind of golden age, when giants roamed the earth, with names such as Beethoven, Brahms, Wordsworth, Goethe, Turner and Monet, leaving a legacy of unparalleled creative achievement behind them.

            Whether this is a true estimation of the 19th century’s artistic achievements, I leave to others to judge.  My taste is mostly in my mouth, and even there I make no great claims for it.  But I can say, with some confidence, that this is NOT the way the 19th century saw itself.  From the 1850s on, there was a developing sense of crisis right across the arts: a sense among artists, intellectuals, and critics – and this was the first “age of criticism” -  that a tired, staid, worn-out and decidedly uninspiring artistic world was collapsing, and that something radically new and different would be required in the new, 20th century to which so many artists were already looking forward.   For a great many artists after 1850, the question was only how best to bring this new world into being.

            Fundamentally, what was at stake in this sense of crisis was the future of Romanticism, the great intellectual movement of late 18th and early 19th century Europe.  On some level, the question that faced European artists after 1850 was a simple one:  did Romanticism have a future?  And if it did have a future, should it?  There was no consensus as to the answer to either question.  Instead, there was a cacophony of conflicting voices and views, all firmly held, forcefully argued, and utterly incompatible with one another.  Needless to say, such confusion did not lessen the sense of artistic crisis with which the century ended.  Instead, it exacerbated it.

            To appreciate the contradictory nature of these late 19th century responses to Romanticism, we need to begin with the contradictions of Romanticism itself.  Every definition of Romanticism is arguable – but I think there is general agreement that across the arts, the movement was characterized by some common tenets.  Amongst these tenets were the following:

1)    The exaltation of emotion over form.  It was not that Romantic art lacked formal elements; it did not. Indeed, the formal elements of early Romanticism would come to be seen as straitjackets by the late Romantics.  But there was a conviction that great art must be driven by strong, clear, pure emotions; and that if these emotions were sincerely and deeply felt, they would determine the literary or musical form of the resulting composition.   Novelty was thus a proof of artistic sincerity. (To see the oddity of this, compare Ezra Pound’s famous remark, so characteristic of 20th century modernism:  “I believe in technique as the test of a man’s sincerity.”)

2)    The singleness of emotion.  Romantic psychology was exceptionally straightforward.  Heroes acted heroically; love was good, and good things could not be destructive.

3)    Art took an objective subject matter, frequently drawn from nature, but portrayed it subjectively, as the individual artist perceived it; or else it took an unreal subject matter, and made it seem real. Either way, the boundary between object and subject, between the world and the artistic imagination, was occluded and potentially effaced.   (Both approaches, of course, made for dangerous politics, as the 20th century would discover to its cost)

4)    Art is serious:  it is not witty or ironic or common.  In the words of Matthew Arnold, poetry, which Arnold thought to be the greatest of the arts, was “high seriousness, written from the soul.”  Poetry therefore required elevated, dignified language, with formal, lofty diction.  Its rhythms should be simple and stately; in English, this meant iambic pentameter.  (Pound again:  “We’ve got to …end the English propensity for a healthy swat on alternate syllables.”)

5)    Great art must be driven by a great idea (Matthew Arnold).  It must have a moral lesson to teach; the nobler the art, the nobler the lesson; and the nobler the lesson, the greater the art.


           By mid-century, however, cracks in this edifice were beginning to show; and by 1900, the building itself had crumbled.  Writing many years later in the introduction to The Oxford Book of Modern Verse (1936), William Butler Yeats wrote:  “in 1900 everybody got down off his stilts; henceforth nobody drank absinthe with his black coffee; nobody went mad; nobody committed suicide; nobody joined the Catholic church; or if they did I have forgotten.  Victorianism had been defeated….”[1]  But Victorianism, as Yeats used the term, was not quite the same thing as Romanticism.  Victorianism for Yeats was a kind of complacent, bourgeois conformity to a stifling, middle-brow literary and artistic culture that reeked of vapid Christian pieties and comfortable virtues.  Victorianism was what had made English literature the laughingstock of Europe, as James Joyce declared it to be in 1910; it was also the reason T.S. Eliot, another early 20th century Modernist, could remember not a single poet in the generation previous to his own who had influenced him.  Instead, Eliot found his models in the metaphysical poets of 17th century England, and in the Romantic poets of late 19th century France.  Joyce, of course, went back even farther, to find his literary models in Homer, and Virgil, and Dante.  Victorianism had to be overthrown; on this the entire avant-garde of later 19th century Europe was agreed.  But as we will see, it was Romanticism itself that provided the tools by which to demolish the Victorian constructions that Romanticism had helped to erect.

           The attack on Victorianism came from many directions.  The search for the impossibly pure emotion, intensely felt, led to a new appreciation for the complexity of human psychology, as the reality of mixed emotions and the destructive power of erotic love became a subject of poetic fascination .  The towering figure in this development was Sigmund Freud, whose first book, The Interpretation of Dreams, appeared in 1899.  But in fact, French psychologists had been fishing in these intellectual waters for several decades already; and so too, of course, had Catullus and the metaphysical poets, as well as Verlaine, Mallarmé, and Swinburne. 

           The claim that art should be judged by the nobility of the ideas it expressed came to be seen, after 1850, as an assault on the independence of art itself.  “L’art pour l’art” (Art for Art’s sake: Gautier) became the new battle cry, as Baudelaire decried what he called “l’heresie de l’enseignement” (the heresy of didacticism) in art.  The essentially representational quality of art was rarely questioned – that attack would come in the new century -- but the assault on ideas in art was unrelenting.   In the quest to make art an exercise in pure perception, some authors and composers sought to bypass ideation altogether.   For Dante Gabriel Rossetti, who was both a painter and a poet, the ultimate poetic achievement would be for poetry to be indistinguishable from painting, so that words could be apprehended directly by the senses without needing to pass through any process of intellectual interpretation.  Yeats too began his career as a painter, and sought in his pre-1914 poetry to capture an emotional expressionism that transcended (some would say “ignored”) the plain sense meaning of his words.  To Yeats, this mattered little.  In his early years, poetry was all about the mood….[2] (Lake Isle of Innisfree:  “when midnight’s all a’glimmer; and noon a purple glow”). 

           More often, however, the search for a purely emotional and perceptual art pointed toward music as the supreme artistic form of late Romanticism.  Claude Debussy, for example, sought to merge music with both painting and poetry.  “Although he was later labeled a musical “impressionist,” Renoir and Monet affected him little; rather, he was influenced more by Anglo-American painters such as Turner and Whistler.”[3] But Debussy also sought to integrate music and poetry, composing a cantata based on Rossetti’s “Blessed Damozel”, and setting the poems of Verlaine and Baudelaire to music.   Schoenberg too was deeply influenced by contemporary poetry; and he too saw music through a late Romantic lens, declaring, in a letter to Ferrucciio Busoni, “I strive for complete liberation from all forms, from all symbols of cohesion and of logic….. [Music] “should be an expression of feeling, as our feelings, which bring us in contact with our subconscious, really are, and no false child of feelings and ‘conscious logic’.”[4]  In characteristically epigrammatic mode, Oscar Wilde went even farther.  Rejecting altogether the representational nature of art, whether literary or musical, he declared “Art never expresses anything but itself.” 

           The ironies here will be obvious.  In its revolt against Romanticism, late 19th century aestheticism (as this movement was called) revealed itself to be an extreme form of Romanticism itself.  Aestheticism exalted subjective perception and pure emotion to extreme degrees, even as it rebelled against the formal and intellectual conventions that had characterized earlier 19th century literature and music. 

           For critics of Victorian high Romanticism, there were two potential paths through the artistic detritus that, in their minds, littered the late-19th century landscape.  They could push Romanticism even farther, as did aestheticism; or they could “clear the ground” by destroying the prevailing cultural norms altogether, so that new artistic shoots, when they did begin to emerge, could do so without resistance.  But despite bold proclamations to the contrary, and notwithstanding the pleasure many late 19th century artists took in offending middle-class morals and mores (“épater le bourgeoisie” was another favorite slogan of the artistic avant-garde), in fact the road to a new art for the most part passed through Romanticism rather than around it. To put the same point a different way, it was as if all the potentialities of Romanticism had first to be exhausted before something fundamentally new would be possible. 

           Nonetheless, there was plenty of shock value left in Romanticism, even in its old age.   Perhaps surprisingly -- or perhaps not -- some of the biggest changes late Romanticism effected in European self-understanding had to do with the way Europeans understood their own history.  By the 1850s, right across Europe, neo-medievalism had become a prominent feature of the cultural landscape.  Examples of this attitude can be seen nearly everywhere:  in the neo-Gothic revival churches of Pugin; in London, in the houses of Parliament, rebuilt in Gothic style after a fire in 1834 destroyed the original buildings; in Viollet-le-Duc’s reconstruction of Carcassone; in the aristocratic German enthusiasm for castle building;  in the novels of Sir Walter Scott, the histories of Jules Michelet, and in collections of folk songs and traditional ballads, which were believed to offer insight into the pure, unchanging soul of a people and a nation. 

           For the most part, late Romantics embraced medievalism avidly.  Characteristic examples would include Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott and Idylls of the King; the Pre-Raphaelite painters; William Morris and the Arts & Crafts movement; Dvořák and Manuel de Falla, who sought to make new music from old traditions of popular song; and of course, towering over everyone else, Wagner, whose work illustrates the way in which the primitivism of the middle ages could be seen as foundational to a very modern – and potentially quite dangerous – kind of nationalism, that in Wagner’s case drew upon an imagined pre-Christian German past to define what it might now mean to be a subject in a newly-united Germany. 

           But not only in Germany was modern nationalism being dressed in medieval garb.  Especially after France’s crushing defeat in the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, right-wing French politicians and pundits turned powerfully toward a vision of la France profonde, “whose nature was inherently rural, inward, and bellicose.”[5] The symbol of this old/new France became Joan of Arc, the peasant girl who led French resistance against an English conquest of France during the 15th century.    In the 18th century, Voltaire had mocked Joan as a naïve young woman of easy virtue and uncertain purpose.  In the late 19th century, no such irreverence was tolerated.  In 1904, when a history teacher at the Lyceé Condorcet had the impertinence “to cast doubt on the role of divine intercession in Joan’s triumph at the Battle of Orleans [keep in mind, this took place in 1429!], and then proposed to analyze the English invasion of France in its 15th century context rather than to portray the English as an expression of transcendent evil… this provoked demonstrations, parliamentary outrage, a duel, a press campaign, and, finally, a public reprimand, and a savage beating of the misguided teacher by a band of right-wing thugs.”  The teacher was finally transferred to another, less visible, school.[6]  As Frederick Brown remarks, in France “The cult of a virgin savior – indeed, the Neo-Romantic penchant in conservative circles for all things medieval – reflected a fortress-France nationalism whose mission was not only to protect the fatherland from external hordes but to defend the cohesive social organism against subversive change.”[7]

           Medievalism did have its critics, however.  Not everyone in the 19th century saw themselves happily clad in a suit of armor.  The assault on 19th century medievalism began in Switzerland, with a German-speaking reactionary figure named Jacob Burkhardt, who hated almost everything about the 19th century, but who especially despised democracy, the Catholic church, and the working class.  Burkhardt was a cultural historian, strongly influenced by Hegel’s philosophy of history with its emphasis upon “spirit” as the animating force behind historical periodization.  Burkhardt hated his own age, and so hated equally the middle ages, with which his own contemporaries so strongly identified.  In good Hegelian fashion, he therefore admired whatever historical period was the antithesis of the benighted, priest-besotted middle ages.  And so he invented the Renaissance, and found in it the opposite of almost everything he hated about his own day.  If the middle ages were an age of faith, then the Renaissance was secular; if the middle ages emphasized communal identities, then the Renaissance was all about individualism; and if the  middle ages were characterized by weak central governments and feeble kingship, then the Renaissance was an era of despots and dictators, of whom Burkhardt heartily approved.

           Burkhardt’s discovery of the Renaissance was quickly taken up by a group of dissident English writers and critics, including Arthur Symonds, Algernon Swinburne, and Walter Pater, who added to Burkhardt’s view of the Renaissance a final, crucial ingredient.  Smothered by the conformity of bourgeois Victorianism, and searching for a world in which avant-garde artists and intellectuals would become the leaders of a revolutionary new cultural movement, they too found the historical models they sought in the Renaissance, and especially in Renaissance art.  And so the myth of the Renaissance as an historical period that marked the end of the middle ages and the birth of the modern, secular, individualistic, scientific, and artistic world was born.  Whether such a world ever existed in 15th and 16th century Italy is extremely doubtful.  But it did exist in late 19th century Europe, and that is where we should properly seek to find it.

           Aside from the middle ages, the other historical mirror in which mid-19th century Europe saw itself reflected was a Roman one.  This, of course, was not a new idea.  It is no accident that the late 18th century American constitution established a government that included a Senate; or that that Senate met in a Capitol building named after the Capitoline Hills in ancient Rome.  Nor is it accidental that so many late 19th century banks in both Europe and America were built to look like Roman temples.  Roman imperialism went down well in a 19th century European world devoted to imperialism abroad as the inevitable and beneficent consequence of the superiority of European civilization.  And so, just as Rome had once brought that civilization to the benighted pagans of western Europe, so now would western Europe do to the benighted denizens of Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.   It was all part of what Kipling would call “the white man’s burden.”

           So ubiquitous (and flattering) was this Roman mirror, however, that in their drive to tear down Victorianism, even the most vehement late 19th century critics could not entirely throw off their togas.  But instead of seeing themselves as citizens of the Roman empire at its height, they chose instead to cast themselves as the representatives of Rome in its decadence and decline, affecting a Romantically-inflected languor (“As for living, our servants will do that for us”: Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Axel), and devoting themselves to the most extraordinary theosophical and mystical nonsense. 

But this sense of a world in decline could also take on a more sinister edge.  Oswald Spengler’s jeremiad, Der Untergang des Abendlandes (translated into English as The Decline of the West, which lacks the “punch” of the German original) became a best-seller.   Social Darwinism came to be seen by many as the only way to reverse a creeping degeneracy evident in the poverty of the working class.  There was also a nasty racial element in this widespread notion of late-19th century degeneracy.  Schoenberg applied this notion of degeneracy to music, augmenting his attack on contemporary tonality with the vocabulary of Social Darwinism and racial theory;[8]  while the president of the American Historical Association explained the decline and fall of the Roman empire as the result of “race mixing”, when decadent “orientals” (by whom he seems to have meant Greeks) interbred with and weakened the pure racial stock of Rome.[9]  The lesson was not lost on the white rulers of late 19th century empires, who lorded it over millions of black and brown colonial subjects at home and abroad.

           More encouragingly, however, it was out of this same sense of themselves as participants in a declining empire that some of the most interesting new literary and musical work of the pre-War period would emerge.  If “the center cannot hold” (as Yeats famously wrote in “The Second Coming”, 1921), then perhaps the cultural periphery of Europe would be where European art would be reborn.  In Ireland, the Gaelic revival was a self-consciously anti-colonial reaction, which saw itself as re-invigorating both Irish and European culture through the rediscovery of authentic national traditions in an historically marginal area. Something similar was also taking place in music. Janáĉek, Bartok, de Falla, and even Ravel (who, although French, was born in the Basque country, and “never shook the feeling that [he] had come from somewhere else”[10]) can all be seen plausibly in this context. So too can Picasso and Miró, both of whom were Catalans.  This search led in some strange directions; but it was enormously productive for the arts as a whole.

           And so we arrive at the dawn of the new century.  By 1900, the sense that the age had gone dead, and that no great art was possible in this time, was widespread.  Romanticism had run its course; and although it would have one final flowering in the Surrealist movement of the 1920s, its creative possibilities had been exhausted.  Victorianism was dead; but as yet there was nothing that could take its place.  What was needed, many people believed, was a resurrection; the kind of resurrection that could come only as a consequence of cataclysmic death and destruction.  This is late Romanticism; and artists and intellectuals bought into such ideas heavily.  The Futurist Filippo Marinetti wrote in 1909:  “No longer is there beauty except in battle.  Everything that deserves the title of masterpiece has an aggressive character.”[11]   Even so refined and pacific a man as Thomas Mann could write, in November 1914, “War!  We felt purified, liberated; we felt an enormous hope.”[12] Mann was not alone in this reaction.  In the words of Alex Ross, “Many artists were exhilarated when the Great War began; it was as if their gaudiest fantasies of violence and destruction had come to life.  Schoenberg in particular fell into the grip of what he would later call his ‘war psychosis’, drawing comparisons between the German army’s assault on decadent France and his own assault on decadent bourgeois values.  In a letter to Alma Mahler dated August 1914, Schoenberg waxed militant in his zeal for the German cause, denouncing in the same breath the music of Bizet, Stravinsky, and Ravel.  “Now comes the reckoning!” Schoenberg thundered.  “Now we will throw these mediocre kitschmongers into slavery, and teach them to venerate the German spirit and to worship the German God.”[13] Rudyard Kipling, the poet laureate of Empire (Jonas), was no less enthusiastic on the English side about the beneficial consequences of war.  Nor was his enthusiasm for war limited to literature.  When his only son John volunteered for war in 1915, he was only 17.  His father happily signed the necessary permission papers to allow his underage son to enlist.[14]

           Needless to say, the consequences of the Great War did not live up to anyone’s hopes.  John Kipling disappeared in the battle of Loos, an indecisive battle in a war of indecisive battles, less than a month after he reached the front.  His parents spent years searching for him; his body was never found, and it was not until 1917 that the Kiplings gave up hope that he might be found alive.  A sense of personal responsibility for the death of his son tormented Kipling, who saw clearly his own responsibility, and that of  his contemporaries, for forming an entire generation’s ideas about the character-forming manliness and nobility of combat.  Years later, in his Epitaph of War, Kipling was still trying to come to grips with his son’s death, and the death of millions of other sons just like him.  In “Common Form”, Kipling reached a simple, but devastating conclusion.  Speaking in the voice of a soldier, he wrote:  “If any question why we died, Tell them, because our fathers lied.”

           I end on this note of anger and pathos, because it seems to me that is what war is.  I have tried to paint this afternoon a picture of the artistic world that preceded the First World War in Europe, and that, to some unknowable degree, prepared the ground for it.  Did artists and intellectuals “cause” the war?  Certainly not.  But they cannot evade responsibility for the war, any more than can the rest of their fellow citizens and subjects; and in the new century that dawned in 1914, and for which they had so ardently hoped, artists and intellectuals would have to come to grips with the unimagined consequences of their Romantic dreams.


[1] The Oxford Book of Modern Verse, 1892-1935, chosen by W. B. Yeats (Oxford, 1936; reprinted 1978), p. xi.

[2] A line from Yeat’s famous early poem, “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” illustrates this point.  “There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow” initially read “There noon is all a glimmer, and midnight a purple glow”.  Only the initial reading makes sense; but the later, published version was more “poetic”.

[3] Alex Ross, The Rest is Noise:  Listening to the Twentieth Century (New York, 2007), p. 41

[4] Arnold Schoenberg, Two Letters to Ferruccio Busoni (1909), in Source Readings in Music History, ed. Oliver Strunk, revised by Leo Treitler (Norton, 1998), pp. 1283-4.

[5] Frederick Brown, The Embrace of Unreason:  France, 1914-1940 (New York, 2014), p. 60.

[6] Brown, Embrace of Unreason, p. 85.

[7] Brown, Embrace of Unreason, p. 92.

[8] Ross, All the Rest is Noise, p. 59.

[9] Tenney Frank, “Race Mixture in the Roman Empire,” published in the American Historical Review 21 for 1915-1916, pp. 689-708.

[10] Ross, All the Rest is Noise, p. 79.

[11] Brown, Embrace of Unreason, p. 52

[12] Ross, All the Rest is Noise, p. 66.

[13] Ross, All the Rest is Noise, p. 66.

[14] For this information on Kipling, I am indebted to Professor Raymond Jonas of the UW History Department.